Marriage Education and Government Policy:
Helping Couples Who Choose Marriage Achieve Success

Scott M. Stanley
Howard J. Markman
University of Denver

Natalie H. Jenkins

March 4, 2002

Support for the preparation of this document, as well as for a significant amount of the research mentioned here, was provided in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health: Division of Services and Intervention Research, Adult and Geriatric Treatment and Prevention Branch, Grant 5-RO1-MH35525-12, "The Long-term Effects of Premarital Intervention" (awarded to the first two authors).
The Goal: The vast majority of ALL Americans desire happy, lasting marriages, whether rich or poor, male or female, and no matter what sub-culture they live within. There is ample evidence that individuals, as well as the society at large, benefit when those citizens who choose marriage for themselves are able to maintain healthy marriages. It is therefore a worthy goal, in both public and private sectors, to make this dream more attainable for more Americans.

The Strategy: One key element of a comprehensive government strategy to strengthen families is marriage and relationship education. Over the past 30 years, marital researchers have discovered that marital success is not a matter of luck nor is marital failure a matter of mystery. Using a growing knowledge base, the best practices in marriage education are scientifically based, regularly refined based on ongoing scientific findings and field experience, and have demonstrated beneficial effects in accordance with scientific standards for dissemination.

Scientifically Tested:  Over the past three decades, scientifically based relationship education programs have demonstrated considerable promise. The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) is one such program that has been studied intensively, including long-term outcome studies by six different research teams in four different countries, and over 20 years of ongoing research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Five of 7 key studies on PREP thus far show very promising findings. Other programs such as Relationship Enhancement and Couples Communication have strong scientific foundations, as well, with strong histories of positive findings in outcome research. While the interpretation of outcome studies is very complex, and researchers can differ in interpretation of the data that exist, there is promising evidence, including the following:

- Couples can learn to reduce patterns of negative interaction that are known risk factors for marital failure, adult depression, poor child outcomes, and work related problems. For example, couples who have deficits in how they handle conflict are more likely to fail and also more likely to have children with behavioral problems. Studies have shown that couples can be taught critical skills that are useful for handling common relationship conflicts (e.g., money, children, chores, and sex). The evidence that couples can learn to communicate less negatively and more positively is quite robust.

- In several significant studies, there is evidence that couples can lower rates of premarital break-up and post marital divorce. For example, in an earlier study at the University of Denver, PREP couples had a 12% break up rate compared to control couples who had a 36% break up rate at the 5 year follow-up. In a recent study in Germany, 3% of the PREP couples had divorced at a 5-year follow-up compared to 16% of couples who received traditional premarital education.  At present, in the most recent study, couples receiving PREP delivered by clergy and lay leaders have a 1.5% break up/divorce rate compared to 10.3% for couples taking alternate programs. Not all studies show these kinds of effects, though, when there are significant differences in break up rates (3 of the main PREP studies at present), they are in the direction of the group receiving the more empirically based strategies (in these studies, PREP) being less prone to breaking up. Unfortunately, too few studies in this field have long enough follow-ups (beyond months or a year) to be able to examine such issues in more detail.

- Couples can learn ways to maintain higher levels of relationship satisfaction and thereby provide increased support to each other as they work as a team both inside and outside the home on their jobs, job training, parenting, and so on.

- In some studies, higher risk couples have shown the strongest effects.

- People with various backgrounds can be trained to be effective providers. Therefore, government workers can reach couples in need with high cost efficiency. People such as social workers, clergy, lay leaders, therapists, public health nurses, have been successfully trained to deliver marriage education services. Using existing care-giving systems enables marriage education to be delivered by service providers who are known to the recipients and who understand the cultural and community context of their work.

It is important to note that the beneficial effects of the more empirically based approaches appear to last up to 5 years after the training for many couples.  Beyond that, the effects probably weaken over time, and therefore it is important for couples who benefit from such material to periodically review it or to participate in booster classes.

Other Benefits: In addition to the specific effects of relationship education for couples, we and other experts in the field argue that marriage education can benefit those interested in marriage through at least five other pathways:

(1) Marriage education provides scientifically based information about the benefits of strong and healthy marriages for both adults and children. Such benefits include being better providers, living longer, being less reliant on government services including welfare, health care, mental heath care, and earning and saving more money.

(2) Marriage education provides information about what to expect in marriage�a roadmap of expected challenges such as the birth of the first child, parenting of adolescents, empty nest, common gender differences, etc. For example, best practices marriage education programs teach couples how to handle differences respectfully�and to have confidence that they can do so. As importantly, it can teach couples that when differences occur, it does not mean they�ve necessarily made the wrong choice in partners (as many young individuals believe), but that even people who love one another will disagree on key issues and need to have strategies for handling differences constructively.

(3) Marriage education is a cost effective way to make couples more aware of other public and private sector resources, including marital counseling for couples who need it.

(4) Marriage education can help couples better understand principles about commitment, acceptance, forgiveness, and sacrifice that are known to be associated with healthy relationships. For example, individuals can learn about how a stable sense of a future together (long-term view; where appropriate) is a fundamental aspect of healthy and successful marriages, and that one way they can act on that knowledge is to learn not to threaten the sense of a future at moments of conflict merely because of the frustration of the moment.

(5) Some individuals can learn about risk factors and conclude that a marriage (or partner) they are considering is not a good choice, or not a good choice at this time. In fact, David Olson has data on premarital counseling that suggests that 10-15% of couples who take PREPARE within 6 months of their intended wedding date decide not to marry. Further, this figure representing constructive break ups goes even higher when couples take PREPARE 6-12 months prior to marriage, along with feedback sessions (David Olson, personal comm. 2/10/00).

Ongoing Refinement of Methods:  Social scientists always hope to gain more knowledge about risk and protective factors for marital outcomes. Indeed, in another decade, we will know even more about key dynamics contributing to marital distress, as well as more about strategies for helping couples succeed. We will also be learning more about which couples respond best to which kinds of strategies. Yet, the societal need to strengthen marriages is so great that we should act now on what we now know. Later, when we know more, we can and will refine our efforts based on new knowledge gained, including knowledge gained as a result of government marriage initiatives in the U. S.

Key Questions

Q:  Does marriage and relationship education simply apply pressure to people to marry?

A:  No.  Marriage education can empower those who choose marriage for themselves to improve their odds. Also, best practice programs can lead some couples to a clearer awareness of their risks such that they conclude they are not ready or not suitable for marriage.

Q:  Don�t these people just need intensive therapy?

A:  Some used to think that ineffective parents were simply bad parents, or parents in need of intense therapy. However, decades of experience and research on parent education demonstrates that people can learn how to be more effective parents. Marital education is no different. It can help people learn ways to be more effective in their pursuit of stable and thriving marriages.

Q:  Don�t jobs matter more than marriage for success in life? Shouldn�t government be focused only on helping people become more employable?

A:  Policy debates often sound as if government can only do one thing or another at a time. There is extensive evidence that family break down contributes to economic problems and also that economic problems contribute to family stress. Government has a vested interest in helping people access both stable employment and stable family environments. Strategies should not be limited to one domain when failure in either is directly linked to dependence upon the government. Not only can government reduce unintended barriers to marriage, government can help citizens achieve better access to the benefits of marital success by helping couples who choose marriage to be more successful at it.

Q:  Do relationship education programs damage couples who have more serious problems, including domestic violence and mental health disorders.

A:  No. Not only is there no evidence that best practices marriage education harms couples, but there is some evidence to the contrary. For example, PREP shows promising results with higher-risk couples. Further, research and clinical experience (e.g., throughout the U.S. Military) suggest that educational approaches are the best way to reach all kinds of couples, where the needs of many couples can be met efficiently, and where those who need more intensive services can learn more about how to access them. Specifically, with some forms of domestic violence, no approach has shown effectiveness�educational or therapeutic. In all cases, the pre-eminent concern is for safety�at times in the form of the female distancing from the male. Regardless, even when it comes to concerns about domestic violence, part of what relationship education can do is teach people about what sorts of behavior are entirely unacceptable, and what options there may be for further help.

Q:  Don�t relationship education efforts take away from the options women have in fulfilling requirements under TANF?

A:  Quite the opposite. Current proposals actually give these women another option�not remove any�among a range of choices that can be combined to satisfy the work activity requirements that have existed for the past 5 years under the 1996 welfare reform act.

Biographical Information:

Scott M. Stanley is co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He has published widely­both research reports as well as writings for couples, with a focus on commitment theory and research. Along with Dr. Howard Markman and colleagues, Dr. Stanley has been involved in the research, development, and refinement of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) for over 20 years. Drs. Stanley and Markman are currently engaged in a long-term study of the effectiveness of PREP disseminated in the community, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Stanley has co-authored the books Fighting for Your Marriage (with Howard Markman and Susan Blumberg), A Lasting Promise, Becoming Parents, Empty Nesting, and is author of The Heart of Commitment.

Howard J. Markman, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology, and director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver in Colorado. He is widely published in academic journals and internationally known for his work on the prediction and prevention of divorce and marital distress.  He has often appeared in broadcast and print media, including segments about PREP on 20/20, Oprah, and 48 Hours.  Along with his colleagues, he has co-authored the books We Can Work It Out: Making Sense of Marital Conflict, Fighting for Your Marriage (with Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg), Becoming Parents, Empty Nesting, and Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage.

Natalie H. Jenkins is vice president and marketing director of PREP, Inc. Natalie began her business career with a degree from Colorado State University, and has extensive experience in the dissemination of program materials to providers and users of educational services. For the last decade, she has spearheaded PREP's efforts to bring its research-based materials out of the research lab and into the hands of couples. She is co-author of the upcoming book, You Paid How Much for That: How to Win At Money Without Losing at Love.  She also is co-developer of The PREP One-Day Leader's Manual, Christian PREP One-Day Leader's Manual, and The PREP Coaching Video. She is also coauthor of the Fighting for Your Marriage Workbooks. Natalie is centrally involved in PREP�s efforts to translate academic research findings into usable strategies for couples.


The Following Reference List is Not Exhaustive.  However, these references would give one good access to the existing literature on research on relationship and marriage education programs for couples.  There is a far broader literature at this point on the risk factors for marital distress and failure. References leading to that literature can be found on our website by going to the marriage facts and research link (

Giblin, P., Sprenkle, D.H., & Sheehan, R.  (1985).  Enrichment outcome research: A meta-analysis of premarital, marital, and family interventions.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 11(3), 257-271.

Guerney, B. G., Jr. & Maxson, P.  (1990). Marital and family enrichment research: A decade review and look ahead. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 1127-1134.

Hahlweg, K., Markman, H.J., Thurmaier, F., Engl, J. & Eckert, V. (1998).
Prevention of marital distress: Results of a German prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 12, 543-556.

Markman, H., Floyd, F., Stanley, S. & Storaasli, R. (1988).  The Prevention of Marital Distress: A Longitudinal Investigation.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 210-217.

Markman, H.J., & Hahlweg, K. (1993). The prediction and prevention of marital distress: An international perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 13, 29-43.

Markman, H.J., Renick, M.J., Floyd, F., Stanley, S., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A four and five year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1-8.

Miller, S., Wackman, D.B., & Nunnally, E.W. (1976). A communication training program for couples. Social Casework, 57 (1), 9-18.

Ridley, C. A. & Sladeczek, I. E. Premarital Relationship Enhancement: Its Effects on Needs to Relate to Others. Family Relations, 1992, 41, 148-153.

Silliman, B., Schumm, W.R., & Jurich, A.P. (1992). Young adults' preferences for premarital preparation program designs. Contemporary Family Therapy, 14, 89-100.

Silliman, B., Stanley, S.M., Coffin, W., Markman, H.J., & Jordan, P.L.  (2001).  Preventive Interventions for Couples.  In H. Liddle, D. Santisteban, R. Levant, and J. Bray (Eds.), Family Psychology Intervention Science.  Washington, D.C.: APA Publications.

Stanley, S.M. (2001).  Making the Case for Premarital Training. Family Relations, 50, 272­280.

Stanley, S.M., Blumberg, S.L., & Markman, H.J.  (1999). Helping Couples Fight for Their Marriages: The PREP Approach.  In R. Berger & M. Hannah, (Eds.), Handbook of preventive approaches in couple therapy (pp. 279-303). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J., Prado, L.M., Olmos-Gallo, P.A., Tonelli, L., St. Peters, M.,  Leber, B.D., Bobulinski, M., Cordova,  A.,  &  Whitton, S.  (2001).  Community Based Premarital Prevention:  Clergy and Lay Leaders on the Front Lines . Family Relations,50, 67-76.

Sullivan, K.T. & Goldschmidt, D. (2000). Implementation of empirically validated interventions in managed-care settings: The prevention and relationship enhancement program. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 216-220.

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